Points to Ponder

Blogs that pose interesting conundrums

Humans Need Not Apply

Just as mechanical muscles made human labor less in demand so are mechanical minds making human brain labor less in demand.

This is an economic revolution. You may think we’ve been here before, but we haven’t.

This time is different.

Automation is here, and it’s been expanding in cognitive ability. We already have self-driving cars, and, by some accounts, nearly all cars will be autonomous by 20501.

The question is not if they’ll replaces cars, but how quickly. They don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be better than us. Humans drivers, by the way, kill 40,000 people a year with cars just in the United States. Given that self-driving cars don’t blink, don’t text while driving, don’t get sleepy or stupid, it easy to see them being better than humans because they already are.

It’s not just self-driving cars2 though.

There is this notion that just as mechanical muscles allowed us to move into thinking jobs that mechanical minds will allow us all to move into creative work. But even if we assume the human mind is magically creative — it’s not, but just for the sake of argument — artistic creativity isn’t what the majority of jobs depend on.

This video isn’t about how automation is bad — rather that automation is inevitable. It’s a tool to produce abundance for little effort. We need to start thinking now about what to do when large sections of the population are unemployable — through no fault of their own. What to do in a future where, for most jobs, humans need not apply.

via Kottke

  1. Autoblog: Nearly all cars to be autonomous by 2050 

  2. “Now to describe self-driving cars as cars at all is like calling the first cars mechanical horses. Cars in all their forms are so much more than horses that using the name limits your thinking about what they can even do. Lets call self-driving cars what they really are: Autos: the solution to the transport-objects-from-point-A-to-point-B problem.” 

(NBA) Kings Won’t Build Their Own Castle

I will admit that, in general, I’m not a huge basketball fan. I know how to play, I know the rules, and I do sometimes enjoy watching it from time to time, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve been to a game and I’ve never been to an NBA game1.

Would I like to have another NBA team in Seattle? Sure…it could be fun; but I don’t need them.

Do I want to provide them a financial incentive to come here, such as building them a new stadium with taxpayer dollars? Absolutely not.

The NBA may be “non-profit”, but the Sacramento Kings Limited Partnership2the basketball team — is most definitely for-profit.

This has been one of the biggest the issue I have with professional sports: NBA, MLB, NFL, etc: why should we, as tax payers, pay for a fully furnished building for a for-profit company?

In my opinion, we should not.

Daniels Real Estate of Seattle and equity partner Stockbridge Capital Partners are building a $400 million, 660-foot skyscraper in downtown Seattle: The Fifth and Columbia Tower. They didn’t need to secure financing or public support — they raised the money themselves.

And that should be the lesson from all of this for basketball in Seattle: If the market is truly profitable, then a company should be able to secure funding privately.

That’s what Chris Hansen, et al, have done. It’s not a perfectly privately financed deal, still financed by the public in part, yet significantly better than previous arrangements sports teams have been making with cities in the recent past.

And this same reason, using private funds to build a new stadium, also appears to be why the NBA Relocation Committee voted unanimously to veto moving the Kings to Seattle:

From www.slate.com:

You see, in addition to offering $365 million for the team [which is $35 million more than the next highest bidder], the Seattle bidders were offering to build a brand new arena for the Kings. By contrast, the Sacramento bidders managed to persuade the city of Sacramento to build a brand new arena for the Kings. The Seattle bid, in other words, would have set a good precedent for the future of American public policy. And the owners didn’t want that. The owners want to be able to make this move over and over again. “Give us a new publicly financed stadium or we’ll move to Seattle” is a threat that works as well in Portland or Milwaukee or Minneapolis or Salt Lake City or Memphis or New Orleans or Phoenix as it does in Sacramento. And the major American sports leagues are organized as a cartel for a reason. An individual owner just wants to sell to the highest bidder. But the league approval process means the owners as a whole can think of the interests of the overall cartel, and those interests very much include a strong interest in maintaining the ability to get cities to pony up subsidies.

At the end of the day, the NBA will do what it pleases; and that’s how things sometimes go when people have free choice. Like I said, it could be fun; but I don’t need an NBA team in Seattle.

But if we capitulate to the NBA on who pays for the arena, that makes us only one thing: suckers.

Title shamelessly ripped from: One Foot Tsunami.

  1. as far as I can recall 

  2. California Business Entity Number: 199206300016 

Link: Why I Lost Faith in the Pro-Choice Movement

Yes, it definitely has an attention grabbing headline, but it also raises several really good points:

I was looking through a Time magazine article whose infograph cited data from the Guttmacher Institute about the most common reasons women have abortions. It immediately struck me that none of the factors on the list were conditions that we tell women to consider before engaging in sexual activity. Don’t have the money to raise a child? Don’t think your boyfriend would be a good father? Don’t feel ready to be a mother? Women were never encouraged to consider these factors before they had sex; only before they had a baby.

The fundamental truth of the pro-choice movement, from which all of its tenets flow, is that sex does not have to have life-altering consequences. I suddenly saw that it was the struggle to uphold this “truth” that led to all the shady dealings, all the fear of information, all the mental gymnastics that I’d observed.

That’s a bold claim: sex does not have to have life-altering consequences. Do you agree?

found via my friend Tim


Deciding and Executing

In my opinion, there are two critical events that must occur when making something happen.

The first is you have to choose to decide to do it. This may seem intuitively obvious and perhaps even easy, but I think it’s actually the hardest. Decide comes from the Latin dēcīdō…from (“down from”) + caedō (“cut”). Decide literally means to “cut off” other options. And when you truly decide something, there is no going back…alea iacta est, “the die has been cast.”1

That’s not an easy thing, and sometimes we don’t even have complete control over all the factors. Never the less, we choose to jump both feet first into that unknown.

The second critical event is executing on what you decided to do. Often times I’m honestly not sure how something is going to happen. There are all sorts of paradigms along the lines of “time, money, quality: pick two.” But speaking as an engineer, I think figuring out the “how” — the appropriate balance of whatever paradigm you choose that brings about a solution — is often half the fun, and is likely easier than truly committing and deciding to do whatever it is that you’re doing.

NB: This an excerpt of an email I wrote to a good friend. I’ve talked about the etymology of “decide” with several people before, but surprisingly never here. Glad we rectified that.

  1. Caesar used the phrase as a metaphor to express the fact that he had crossed the river, and there was no going back. See also: The End is Nigh…at least the End of the Beginning is Nigh 

No Stupid Questions

Chauncey has left Seattle for an adventure at seminary. Thus far, I approve of his classes:

From teamchauncey.wordpress.com:

One of my professors said something yesterday that stuck with me. He said, “There are some people who say there are no stupid questions…we know this is patently untrue. However, the stupid question is not asked from ignorance on grounds of seeking understanding. The stupid question is that which is asked to make oneself seem intelligent.” We then made an informal agreement as a class to avoid such questions.

Asking questions is important; and I don’t think there should be shame or embarrassment in asking questions. If something is unclear, I think you have a duty to get understanding about it. This has been a hard thing for me to learn — and I’m still learning it. But I love asking questions and I try to make a lot of what I do about asking questions, there are very few better ways to learn.

One of the stories that has inspired me is Richard Feynman’s experience at Los Alamos. When I’m talking to young engineers, or really anybody, about asking questions, I like to recall this story. Feynman is overseeing some work at Los Alamos, helping design nuclear weapons and such:

I sat down and I told them all about neutrons, how they worked, da da, ta ta ta, there are too many neutrons together, you’ve got to keep the material apart, cadmium absorbs, and slow neutrons are more effective than fast neutrons, and yak yak — all of which was elementary stuff at Los Alamos, but they had never heard of any of it, so I appeared to be a tremendous genius to them.

The result was that they decided to set up little groups to make their own calculations to learn how to do it. They started to redesign plants, and the designers of the plants were there, the construction designers, and engineers, and chemical engineers for the new plant that was going to handle the separated material.

They told me to come back in a few months, so I came back when the engineers had finished the design of the plant. Now it was for me to look at the plant.

How do you look at a plant that isn’t built yet? I don’t know. Lieutenant Zumwalt, who was always coming around with me because I had to have an escort everywhere, takes me into this room where there are these two engineers and a loooooong table covered with a stack of blueprints representing the various floors of the proposed plant.

I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they unroll the stack of blueprints and start to explain it to me, thinking I am a genius. Now, one of the things they had to avoid in the plant was accumulation. They had problems like when there’s an evaporator working, which is trying to accumulate the stuff, if the valve gets stuck or something like that and too much stuff accumulates, it’ll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.

Then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuurp — going through the stack of blueprints, down-up-down-up, talking very fast, explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.

I’m completely dazed. Worse, I don’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It’s a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. I think it’s a window, but no, it can’t be a window, because it isn’t always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.

You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, “What are you wasting my time all this time for?”

What am I going to do? I get an idea. Maybe it’s a valve. I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page three, and I say, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” — figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”

So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck –” and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy goes up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other. They turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, “You’re absolutely right, sir.”

So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning,” he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?”

I told him you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.

Feynman clearly is wanting to know what that thing is! And so he asks, although in a definitively roundabout way. But he asks the question. And so should you.


Startups Are All About Timing

Growing up, my friend neighbor-friend, Eddie, would often joke that he would to hire me for his company when we were older. We were 12 and he was always vague about the actual industry, but it seemed like it could be fun.

In high school, another friend, Peter, swore up and down that his sole goal in life was to hire me to work for him. That hasn’t happened yet, but we keep talking about it.

I somehow seemed destined to be part of (or start) a small company—or something novel like that.

Derek Powazek recently wrote an article about timing and launching his new website and makes this great point that I take to heart:
From powazek.com:

But the truth is, startups are really all about timing. Lots of people have lots of ideas every day. Ideas aren’t the hard part, timing is. Good timing won’t guarantee success, of course, but you can’t succeed without it.

I don’t know if “the right time” is the end-all, be-all. But I think it certainly goes a long way.

I also like that Derek keeps a book with ideas in it. I think I need one of those books. And a list of people I want to be on my team. I’ve gone through exercises in my head where I think about what kind of company I would start and who I might have on my team.

I think it the time is right to start writing them down.